July 18, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Bo

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

The Lord said to Moses, “Stretch forth your hand toward the heavens, and there will be darkness over the land of Egypt, and the darkness will become darker.”    Exodus 10:21


Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld
Scholar in Residence JMI Aish Hatorah, COO Harkham GAON

A close family friend recently told me that she was in a “dark place,” demoralized by the suffering and slow deterioration of old friends. Her phrasing was honest and poetic. Darkness is a fitting metaphor for people who have lost their inner light. In the context of our verse, it also compellingly describes societies whose values have become unenlightened. 

An aggadic midrash describes hoshekh, the ninth plague, as a darkness that was palpable and suffocating, a darkness that immobilized everyone who was enveloped in it. It was not a natural darkness. This was something else. This was more sinister. This was Egypt. Like every empire, Egypt violently and arrogantly imposed its power. It worshipped gods out of fear rather than love, awe and aspiration. It devolved into a dark society where goodness and light were extinguished. It was a culture with no sun, no moon, no stars. A society with no compassion, no generosity, no illumination. The plague of darkness was not merely a punishment, it was an indictment. It was a natural cosmic response to the darkening of Man’s divine light. 

The mission of the Jew coalesced in Egypt. It exhorted Jews to become beacons of light. To inspire, not impose. To radiate, not stifle. To shine, not shun. To illuminate the dark places. May we all attach ourselves to this legacy and may we continue to bring light into all the spheres that we inhabit! Shabbat Shalom. 

Nina Litvak
AccidentalTalmudist.org

The darkness of the ninth plague is darker, a new level of darkness, tangible. It lasts for three days, although the Egyptians lose all sense of time. It feels like the primordial universe before God created light and life. There is no human interaction. People are terrified to even move. Ibn Ezra compared the darkness to sea fog and our sages said it was as thick as a dinar (coin). If you’re afraid to move, the very air becomes oppressive. Devoid of light, movement, human connection and consumed with fear, the Egyptians experience a kind of death.

Moses asked Pharaoh to let his people go worship their God — Creator of light and life — in the desert for three days. The Children of Israel wanted to praise God and sacrifice to God, they wanted to tap into Divine light. Even in their bondage, they maintained their devotion to their Creator, and their respect for life. Pharaoh wouldn’t let them spend three days celebrating the Creator of light and Giver of life. Now he and his people are suffering three days of the complete absence of light and life. Denying the Creator means losing the benefit of His creations. 

While the Israelites are scurrying around excitedly, packing and helping others get ready for the great escape, racing to beat the clock, each Egyptian is sitting completely still and utterly alone in oppressive, timeless darkness. What a stark contrast between a life spent worshipping God and a life spent worshipping man.

Professor Tova Hartman
Ono Academic College, Israel 

Darkness does not suddenly descend upon Egypt; first, Moses must “hold out [his] arm toward the sky.” This is the typical pattern of the previous plagues, which are initiated by Moses or Aaron. It is a pattern that is new to the Book of Exodus. In Genesis, God destroys the builders of the Tower of Babel or overturns the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah without any human initiation. This pattern is very persistent in Exodus, culminating in the declaration that after crossing the Red Sea, “They had faith in the LORD and his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31). 

It is not realistic to expect slaves who had been completely intimidated by the brute force of the Egyptians and the magical powers of their priests to suddenly believe in the promise God gave to Abraham. Their mindset and beliefs cannot be changed immediately. They must see Moses and Aaron over and over again beating the Egyptians at their game, teaching the Israelites that we are stronger than the Egyptian people who enslaved us. 

Leaders must meet people where they are, but leaders fail if that is all they do. They also must bring a vision of transformation and the means to accomplish it. The result of Moses’s leadership style in Egypt is successful because he brings God’s vision to the people where they are. That is what transforms palpable darkness into light and leads to a much larger goal: a newfound faith in God that culminates in the covenant at Sinai.

David Brandes
Writer-producer best known for “The Quarrel”

Consider the prizefighter as he decks his opponent. Immediately, he raises his hands to the heavens in victory. Now consider the captured prisoner of war. He too raises his hands to the heavens, but in defeat. Curious, isn’t it, that the gestures for triumph and submission are exactly the same all over the world? 

In this week’s parsha, Moses is instructed by God to raise his hands to the heavens and a thick darkness is brought down on the Egyptian people. The Israelites, however, were spared. Their homes were filled with light. This raises the question: Did Moses lift his hands in triumph or in defeat? No simple answer here; I suppose it depends on whose side you are on. 

For Moses and the Israelite slaves, it was another step in removing from their backs the oppression of the Egyptians as well as a further sign of God’s commitment and the breathtaking scope of His powers. For the Egyptians, it was sheer misery, brought on by their Pharaoh and by themselves. 

From God’s perspective, it was both. God is the creator of the universe and all of the inhabitants are His. God does not play the game of moral equivalence, to be sure, but as we learn later at the Red Sea, God is saddened by the suffering of all. 

It is important for us to keep in mind that a shadow accompanies virtually every triumph. 

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick
Mishkon Tephilo, Venice

Although commonly translated as “toward the heavens,” the Hebrew actually states “upon the heavens.” What strange language! How could Moses, an Earth-bound human, stretch forth his hand upon the heavens? 

From this single word, the Midrash extrapolates that God lifted Moses up to the heavens so he could stretch out his hand and darken everything below. The rabbis explain that, having initially created the heavens and Earth as mutually exclusive realms, God came to realize the necessity of enabling beings to traverse between the two. In this instance, humankind is permitted to ascend to the heavens. On other occasions, God utilizes this bridge to descend to Earth. 

This blurring of boundaries between the heavens and Earth is an incredible gift not only for Moses but for all of humankind. The Midrash teaches that the heavens are far closer than we think and that we can engage with them whenever we want — like Moses, we simply need to direct our attention toward the will of God. 

This is precisely the goal of living a spiritual life. When we bless over food, acknowledge the beauty of nature or marvel at the miracles of life, we are fulfilling God’s will and bringing ourselves closer to the Divine. When we engage in acts of kindness and charity, our souls are joined with the heavens above. If we allow the Divine to guide our actions here on Earth, every moment — whether significant or mundane — is an opportunity for us to encounter the heavens.